Monday, September 26, 2022

a shamelessly subjective recollection with scholarly implications

The arrival of Rosh Hashanah put me in mind of the time, very long ago, when my freshly arrived in graduate school self discovered not only Elie Wiesel's novel The Gates of the Forest from which the above Hasidic tale is taken, but some of the most beautiful and astonishing books that the Bollingen Foundation ever published in its Bollingen Series. The twelve volumes of Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough's Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period were no more than a prolegomenon to the research he had contemplated on the relationship between early Christianity and the mystical Judaism exemplified by Philo of Alexandria, but that grand finale never got beyond a single essay on Justin Martyr. The dozen volumes, however, contained an evocative array of subjects, such as "Pagan Symbols in Judaism," "Fish, Bread, and Wine," and above all, "Symbolism in the Dura Synagogue." Dura-Europos was a strategically important outpost garrison town on the border of the Eastern Roman Empire. When it fell to invaders, an accident of the defensive wall that had been hastily reinforced preserved the wall drawings from the world's oldest known Christian house church, and elsewhere along the wall, a Jewish synagogue that contained a spectacular array of floor-to-ceiling narrative paintings of key moments in stories from scripture. Goodenough interpreted these in terms based on his earlier hypotheses about Jewish hellenistic mysticism of which the philosopher Philo was only the most prominent interpreter. I found it all emotionally intoxicating, especially when I paged through the illustrations in volume 11 without realizing that the synagogue art was mostly reproduced in the color illustrations while the bulk of the black and white ones were examples of parallel models from what Goodenough and most other folks called Greco-Roman paganism. Here, without further commentary, is some of the stuff that set me on my ear back when I was suffused with excitement without much accompanying understanding. It still gives me an emotional rush, even if I have intermittently revisited the topic over the years and have a slightly more nuanced set of opinions about the whole topic. (There have been a host of other archaeological discoveries to render the picture even more complex than Goodenough thought it was.)

Monday, August 29, 2022

Notes on Two Atlanta Exhibitions (a Transitory Annotation for the Sake of My Local Readership)

“Is this trip really necessary?” was a motto on World War II posters intended to remind U.S. civilians who were putting up with gasoline rationing, along with restrictions on buying tires and new cars (there weren’t any), that they had better think twice before wasting their limited travel resources on trivialities, or even on ill-thought-out trips for essentials. When it comes to art, of course the trip is necessary. Reproductions, whether in books or in high-quality digital versions online, aren’t the same thing on several levels, even for art in the age of its technical reproducibility, to use the contemporary translation of Walter Benjamin’s oddly rendered phrase about “the age of mechanical reproduction”— movies may be viewed more on tablets or phones than in theatres, but most of them were designed to function on a much larger screen, just as photographs intended for exhibition were created with a particular scale in mind, and were certainly not meant to be viewed in the internally illuminated form online viewing gives them—even in the case of digital prints.

So I feel strange recommending the notion that there are shows that ought at least to be looked at in online images accompanied by whatever curatorial statements originally accompanied them. But for a variety of regrettable reasons, the shows I am writing about here didn’t get the coverage they deserved, and this is their final week before closing.

Of course, it remains the case that most of us will only experience almost all of the world’s art shows in whatever form of documentation the galleries and global biennials choose to put online, just as we used to be limited to whatever was shown on the paper invitation to the opening or in the print catalogue describing the exhibition. And seeing a digital simulacrum of the whole show is still better than having no idea at all of what it looked like.

Thus I am pleased that Sandler Hudson Gallery has provided an online catalogue of William Downs’ curatorial efforts in “An Empty Space to Fill (Phase Two.)”:

It is obvious, just looking at the juxtaposition of artworks, that Downs has thought about the interplay of palette and the visual rhythm of internal composition in deciding how to make this exhibition a coherent experience. He also assembled a range of styles and perspectives on art and on the world that it would have been interesting to analyze, given but world enough and time. (Just as writers are always looking for the perfect reader, I suspect curators are always looking for the perfect viewer and/or critic, the one who will get out of the show everything they put into it.) I’m truly sorry that the chance circumstances of the month of August allowed this show to slip through the interstices of art journalism.

It closes on September 3, so friends living in metro Atlanta still have a number of days to see the show for themselves, in person.

Even more so do I regret the disappearance without commentary of Douglas Baulos’ “Night’s Hand on Your Shoulder,” curated by Lisa Alembik for Swan Coach House Gallery. Balios’ citation of quilting strategies and animal symbolism in the composition of symbolic portraits and other elaborate pieces of mysterious imagery deserved the kind of unpacking that I wasn’t capable of tackling even had I been given the opportunity. And once again because of the vagaries of the accidental gaps of August, nobody else took up the challenge either.

I am posting a couple of detail shots here more in the nature of a teaser than elucidation of anything. But again, friends inclined to make the journey can see the work itself, and read Alembik’s acutely perceptive curator’s essay, at the gallery through September 8.

Monday, December 6, 2021

this one could use about fifty bibliographic footnotes, but for now, here goes

In an M.A. thesis I was never able to turn into something publishable, I remarked that Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God was a flawed effort at encompassing the whole field of mythology that needed to be corrected in very fundamental ways but not discarded in its entirety. Reading some survey texts written for a general audience (and I get more general all the time as the decades pass since my doctorate), I am recalling some of the passages in volume one, Primitive Mythology, a title that already suggests some of its difficulties. But its grounding of the impulse towards emotionally committed storytelling in basic human characteristics and the even more basic biological characteristics that underpin them seems like a reasonable starting place for reframing without reductionism.

As a much-derided twentieth-century thinker once wrote, when physics explains the nature of light, nobody expects that as a result there will be no longer be any light.

In fact, we probably need to think more about the relationship between our hard-wired tendency to jump to conclusions and our childhood penchant for making things up that we know aren’t true, alongside things that we wish were true but right now are not, and things that we think explain the full truth of things (but really don’t).

Reality stays constructed that way in the grown-up world, and the greatest dilemma of human societies may be the way in which that tendency to construct stories is exploited and expanded for purposes of social domination on the one hand, and individual gratification on the other. Few people grasp the reasons why they not only distort their own perceptions of the world around them, they fail to see the consequences of those distortions. Even when they are grasped, nobody ever grasps them fully. The best mystical traditions were devoted to uncovering those distortions, even though most of what is called mystical is as blindly unaware of its distortions as the hardest-nosed rationalism, which is almost always devoted to excluding as much of reality as it can manage.

A science of the imagination really ought to be possible that would be devoted to eliminating the most commonplace and curable distortions, while heightening the awareness of the inevitability of distortions and their useful emotional functions, and trying to cultivate more satisfactory versions of them. As it is at present, the human ability to imagine things that do not reflect the world as it ordinarily is has too often been divided up into unpleasantly sterile categories: on one hand, fantasies that placate the starved demands of the inner child that has never left us (and usually do so with embarrassing simplifications); on another, hypotheses for future social and/or technological scenarios that take into account all the factors except those unfulfilled infantile needs; and as a corollary of the latter, fantasies of all sorts that are regularly taken for the hard facts about how things are and how things have to be.

These differently distorted visions of the world can’t be cured by the ordinarily recommended methods. I gave examples of these in an earlier draft of this, but then decided to put my concluding paragraph into practice.

The best of the world’s mystics really were trying to break apart the ossified structures that had become tools for self-destruction of the species, and to replace them with connective forms of awareness that would be both supple and rigorous. But of course they didn’t use those terms, and the frameworks they used were shaped by the cultures in which they lived, even as they sought to reshape those cultures. And their practical insights were turned into superstitious repetitions of meaningless practices almost as soon as they had been articulated.

And what, exactly, lay beyond the margins of their merely practical insights is something that is barely open to exploration, much less comprehension. But they taught us that it is our job to explore it and comprehend it. Some of them said that that task is the only reason that we are here, though that assertion always was open to contestation and/or interpretation. The contestation and/or interpretation sometimes led to bloodshed, which is the way we humans like to resolve our disagreements a large part of the time.

We have more pieces of the human puzzle available to us today than ever before in this present cycle of civilization (and probably than in all the previous cycles, but we’ll never be sure) but the pieces need to be put together in a different order, or put together in the first place. And all the flaws and predilections of our mammalian inheritance combine with our inventive capacities to make things up that make us feel better or lend us a competitive advantage, creating prevailing forces that make that happy outcome unlikely to happen.

One place to start might be by cultivating an awareness of people’s many triggering mechanisms, and framing discussions in terms that will not set off antipathy right from the start. But almost nobody seems to know how to do this, even though the tools with which to learn how to do it are readily available.

Monday, July 19, 2021

an explanatory footnote to the previous post

I have no particular enthusiasm for Eugene Thacker. But I am struck by his remarks on the relationship (even though it is an inverted relationship) between mystical theology, the experience of the sublime, and "the fantastic" and contemporary attempts to grasp the age of the hyperobject and potential planetary extinction.

I need to refine my own thoughts on these topics, and have promised analytical essays for too long a time. Thacker's observations are enough to spur me into motion, I hope. I hope.

summing up one philosopher's take on any number of my past topics, by excerpting a Eugene Thacker interview

The old maxim “All things come to those who wait” is self-evidently not true (my all-expenses-paid invitations to the Helsinki or Riga Biennales haven’t showed up yet, for example) but some of the topics on which I have been promising for years now to write my own reflections are dealt with, albeit obliquely, in Daniel Beatty Garcia’s 2019 interview with Eugene Thacker for the culture-and-fashion site and print magazine 032c. I have strung together some highlights that I think are obviously relevant to the several topics on which I have been writing for the past few decades, initially in Art Papers magazine but more recently in my blog and (I thought I included a brief discussion of Thacker’s books in my 2015 “History of Religions and Cultural Fashions Revisited” essay in Mihaela Gligor, ed., From Influence and Confluence to Difference and Indifference: Studies on History of Religions, which you may download free of charge from Cluj University Press, or you can download just the essay from, though you may have to sign up for a free account. But on consulting the text I discover that I only cited some of his companion philosophers on the same subject matters. Never mind.)

[The sentences set off by triple hyphens are Daniel Beatty Garcia’s responses to Eugene Thacker’s remarks.]

For me, the most interesting horror criticism isn’t necessarily academics from film studies writing about horror films. I’m more inspired by theologians writing about religious experience, for instance. They aren’t talking at all about horror film, but there’s something in what they are talking about that resonates with the kind of films that I’m interested in. …if you look, say, at mystical traditions, they’re simply using the terminology of religion or theology to talk about the same structural issue, which is a horizon to human understanding. ---In that sense you could say that the ancestor of modern horror is negative theology.---


And you see some of these motifs historically: in Tarkovsky, in Ingmar Bergman’s films – Through a Glass Darkly especially – all the way back to German expressionism.

It’s also there in a lot of Asian horror. There’s a lot of film coming out of South Korea that I find really compelling. There’s a recent film called The Wailing, and another called A Tale of Two Sisters. Both of these not only have that slow horror feeling about them, they also explicitly deal with a dilemma: is something supernatural happening, or is it all in my head? You have a split between the scientific and the religious, or the psychological and the supernatural, and an uncertainty that’s held all the way through to the end. That’s really hard to do, and it’s another example of just holding or inhabiting uncertainty and confusion and not trying to resolve it too easily.

---That sustained uncertainty – what the literary critic Tzvetan Todorov calls “the fantastic” – and that slowed down dread seem to be spreading. Part of the movement comes from the other direction – other genres incorporating horror tropes, directors like Nicolas Winding Refn using the Giallo horror aesthetic.--

Absolutely. Crime thrillers like You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay’s film. These are out of genre, but you can see how they’re importing that same sense of slow, almost lyrical dread. There’s again this zoomed out sense that these characters aren’t really making decisions. There’s some other nebulous set of forces, and the human beings are just puppets. That it’s leading them to some end.

Sometimes this is expressed visually. I just watched this TV show, The Terror. It uses a technique you see a lot in film in which you cutaway to the landscape. The contrast is between the smallness of human beings – the intensive little human drama happening aboard this ship – and then this vast indifferent landscape that is surrounding it. Again, there’s some resonance between that sort of experience and earlier accounts of mystical experience or religious experience.

---Couldn’t this experience of our smallness in front of the vastness and incomprehensibility of nature be a positive one? Poets have called it “the sublime.”---

Of course, for some philosophers like Kant there’s a happy ending to the story, because human reason is able to recognize this limit and then say, “Well, okay, that’s off limits, but within this domain we can obtain a certain level of mastery.” It’s interesting to quote somebody like Lovecraft in juxtaposition to Kant, because they’re both talking about that distinction between the world in itself and the world as it appears to us, but Lovecraft goes all the way, and says that there is no moment of redemptive reason.

---Bruno Latour has an interesting take on this. He points out that if new research into the Anthropocene shows the nonhuman world to be marked at every point by us, human influence has “scaled up” to the extent that we are no longer so small compared to nature. So experiencing the sublime, that feeling of being dwarfed, becomes impossible. What this shows, for him, is that what we took to be an unreactive or indifferent nonhuman world was in fact sensitive all long, and that we are enmeshed in it at every point.---

There’s some interesting things in those kinds of theories, but they are still heavily anthropocentric. I think one of the lessons of the Anthropocene is that there seems to be a species-specific solipsism that we’re so stuck in that we’ve actually named an epoch after ourselves.

---What are Anthropocene theories missing?---

They usually ignore two kinds of indifference at work. The first is that we can call the world whatever we want and measure it however we want – there’s still the unbreachable opacity of the something-else out there reacting or not reacting. The second kind of indifference is more specifically contemporary. If you look at the tradition of the Gothic novel, there’s a tension between science and religion, and often that boils down to a conflict between the rational and the non-rational. Now added to that is something we could call “cold rationalism.”

Every day you can look at The Guardian, and there’ll be some article with a lot of facts and data about the amount of biomass we consume, or the sixth mass extinction, or whatever. We’re inundated with this big data level of horror. It’s not so much a failure of science – the science works almost too well. What it reveals to us is exactly how indifferent the world is to all of our attempts to master, or control it, or produce knowledge about it. Authors in the early 20th century like Lovecraft and other “weird” authors already understood that the more horrifying path was not anti-science, the non-rational. Far more horrifying is what science will reveal.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Welcome to my world, or discovering the extreme self before the extreme self was cool, or even digital

Today is the official publication date (in Europe, but not in North America) of “The Extreme Self: Age of You,” the followup to “The Age of Earthquakes” that Hans Ulrich Obrist, Douglas Coupland and Shumon Basar compiled with the collaboration of a slew of artists and designers. I’ve ordered a copy despite the fact that the shipping costs as much as the book, because (and this is increasingly characteristic) I am afraid that by the time it finally becomes available through Amazon US, I’ll have moved on to other research areas, even though this is a research area that it is impossible to move away from because it is me and how I do things in this rapidly altering era, and you and how you do things, and maybe you more than me. I remember how by the time Ernst Bloch’s “The Principle of Hope” finally became available in English, nobody, me included, felt like reading it anymore, because the circumstances that had made it seem urgently relevant had been altered beyond recognition. I joke about “you more than me” because it has just now dawned on me that although I now spend more time online than immersed in the daily-changing stacks of books that surround me, my perceptual habits haven’t shifted, just the media involved in them. I have always been influenced by the accidental juxtaposition of unsuspected relationships, books put next to each other like windows left open on a laptop screen that were originally part of completely separate searches, but that now suggest previously unsuspected causal connections that have to be evaluated as to their actual relationship to one another, because pattern recognition. (I love that now-already-dated idiom in which implicitly obvious ends of sentences are left off, making it incumbent on the reader to fill in the blank. In this case the part left out takes up roughly five thousand words, but they are words I have written so many times in the past that I assume anybody who has read this far already knows the drill.) And since I thought I was finished writing this, before posting it to the Counterforces blog and Facebook I checked my e-mails and discovered an online exhibition that opened in April that I had somehow overlooked, from Museum of Design Atlanta, “The Future Happened: Designing the Future of Music.” The “About the Exhibit” essay by Sarah Panzer does an excellent job of explaining the premises behind what I’ve written in this brief essay of my own, although it does so in terms of a completely different topic. “Examining innovation in design and technology that deepens our relationship with music, we open our eyes to new and radical narratives that have the power to transform our ways of being in the world.”

Friday, May 14, 2021

An updating slightly rewritten from my Facebook post, a companion note to a 2015 review of "The Age of Earthquakes"

Nothing like starting out the day with news from Hans Ulrich Obrist of the imminent publication of "The Extreme Self: Age of You," the pandemic-delayed book on which an exhibition was based that premiered in Toronto just before the pandemic and is now on display in its co-sponsoring venue in Dubai. I am sure that if I searched further I would find the art magazine coverage that more au courant friends read back around Christmas 2019, when I was otherwise distracted. I like the irony that an exhibition and book premised on the problem of extreme change (the followup to "The Age of Earthquakes," about which I wrote on this blog when it was published in 2015) should have had its schedule delayed by the extreme change of a planet-wide pandemic, such as was prophesied, at more or less the same moment, by William Gibson's novel "Agency," the second novel in the Jackpot trilogy. And as I have pointed out repeatedly over the past twenty-five years in other contexts (and less often in the half-dozen years since the first Obrist/Coupland/Basar collaboration), Hans Ulrich Obrist and Douglas Coupland and Shumon Basar are excellent diagnosticians (slickly hip, but that is the root of their excellence) for a widely distributed global socioeconomic class. The extreme self is not the same experience for former members of that class for whom even basic Skype connections are intermittent in between bombing raids. But it has close relatives among less prosperous populations in countries where almost all banking is conducted on mobile phones because the economy does not support readily accessible bricks-and-mortar bank branches. Anyway, I'm embarrassed that I didn't know about all this back when it first became news a year and a half ago, but for those of my Facebook friends who also didn't get the memo, here is a review: I also recommend the website of the institution in the United Arab Emirates that will be hosting the exhibition through August 2021; it is most instructive to peruse the perspectives of the world as seen from a country that a few of my friends know well, but that I know only through the blurry lens of my frequently bad internet connection.

Counterforces and Other Little Jokes